Yankees baseball legend Yogi Berra coined the proverbial phrase “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”. That is certainly true about the European economic crisis. This past week saw a crop of bad news from the Old World. Nothing very dramatic – and certainly nothing that should surprise regular readers of this blog – but nevertheless bad news. In this first of two parts, let’s look at a report from the EU Observer:
The eurozone appears to have come back onto the markets’ radar amid low inflation, poor economic news from Germany, and Greece’s bailout exit plans. Greece’s long-term borrowing costs went above 8 percent on Thursday (16 October) – their highest for almost a year – as investors took fright at the fragile political situation in the country. The government in Athens has tried to shore up popular support by suggesting it will exit its bailout programme with the International Monetary fund more than a year early.
There is an important background here. The bailout program had three components:
1. The Greek government will do everything in its power to combine a balanced budget with protecting as much as possible of its welfare state against the economic depression;
2. In return for the Greek government’s tax increases and spending cuts, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank provided loans that kept the Greek government afloat cash-wise;
3. The only metric used to measure the success of bailout policies is the stability of a balanced government budget.
If GDP did not grow, if unemployment was at 30 percent, if more than half the young in Greece had no job to go to… none of that mattered. As a result, there has been no structural improvement of the Greek economy; government has not reduced its burden on the private sector – quite the contrary, in fact. Welfare systems have been reduced, but higher taxes have prevented welfare recipients from transitioning into self sufficiency.
As a result, the social situation in Greece is almost unbearable. The political reaction has come in the form of a surge for parties on the extreme flanks of the political spectrum. In my book Industrial Poverty I explain in detail what happened in Greece, what brought the country down from the heights of European prosperity to permanent stagnation. Today, sadly, the country is little more than a macroeconomic wasteland.
It is with this in mind that one should approach the news that Greece is considering leaving the bailout program. The coalition government is under enormous pressure to save the nation itself, to keep parliamentary democracy in place and to inject some sort of life into the economy. If they fail either of two extreme political movements will take over – the Chavista communists in Syriza or the Nazis in Golden Dawn.
International investors know this and are understandably scared. In their mind the bailout is the least of available evils; in reality, as I explain in my book, the attempts at balancing the budget and saving the welfare state in the midst of the crisis are the very policies that keep Greece from recovering; weak signs of a minor recovery earlier this year have yet to materialize into anything other than the “beaten dog” syndrome often following protracted periods of austertiy.
This is the very reason why Greece is now considering leaving the bailout program. They cannot continue forever to try to muddle through with an economy deadlocked in depression and a democracy so fragile that it has brought the first Nazis into a parliament in Europe for the first time since World War II.
However, as the EU Observer explains, the Greek government is caught between a rock and a hard place – as are other hard-hit euro zone economies:
But the recent announcement spooked investors, unconvinced that Greece can stand alone. Long-term borrowing costs also jumped in the weak periphery states, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The market jitters – while not comparable to the height of the eurozone crisis in 2011 and 2012 – come as the eurozone’s main economies are once again at odds over policy responses.
France also belongs on that list, primarily for its typically European attempt at leaving the bailout program. Its government tried to leave the bailout path for a left turn into the quagmire of government expansionism. Thinking that more government spending, on top of the largest government spending in the world, could in fact bring about a recovery, the French socialists who won the 2012 elections scoffed at the EU balanced-budget rules and went full speed ahead with their government-expansionist agenda.
Two years later that agenda has hit a brick wall. Massive tax increases, supposed to pay for some of the new government spending, have only resulted in an exodus of brain power and entrepreneurship. The French GDP is standing more still than the Eiffel Tower.
In fact, the EU Observer notes,
France and Italy are fighting a rearguard action for more flexibility saying budget slashing will condemn them to further low growth. Paris is on collision course with both Berlin and the European Commission after having indicated that it wants an extra two years to bring its budget deficit to below 3 percent of GDP. Italy, meanwhile, has submitted a national budget for 2015 which brings the country to the edge of breaking the rules.
The French challenge to the budget-balance rules compounds the uncertainty emanating from the talks in Athens about a Greek bailout exit. It is more than a theoretical possibility that at least one of these countries leaves the euro zone in the next two years, and does so for a combination of political and economic reasons. That would be an institutional change to the European economy – and really the global economy – of such proportions that no traditional quantitative analysis can render justice to a forecast of its effects. It is therefore entirely logical that global investors are growing more uncertain and as a result demand higher risk premiums.
As the icing on the uncertainty cake, informed investors know that Marine Le Pen may very well become France’s next president. If she wins in 2017 her first order of business is in all likelihood going to be to exit the euro zone and reintroduce the franc. On the one hand that could be an “orderly” exit; on the other hand it would have ripple effects throughout the southern rim of the euro zone to the point where the very future of the common currency is in grave danger.
In summary: mounting uncertainty about the future of the euro is being mixed with growing uncertainty about the macroeconomic performance of the member states of the currency union.
Stay tuned for the second part about the bad news out of Europe.
I recently noted that the French government has resorted to desperate tax cuts. These cuts reflect a major change in economic thinking in Paris, but the decisiveness of this turnaround struck me as a bit odd. After all, there was no unpredictable economic news out there to explain why it happened now.
Or was there?
British newspaper Independent has the story:
The land of 400 cheeses, the birthplace of Molière and Coco Chanel, is facing an unprecedented exodus. Up to 2.5 million French people now live abroad, and more are bidding “au revoir” each year. A French parliamentary commission of inquiry is due to publish its report on emigration on Tuesday, but Le Figaro reported yesterday that because of a political dispute among its members over the reasons for the exodus, a “counter-report” by the opposition right-wing is to be released as an annex.
And why is this such a controversial topic? The Independent explains:
Centre-right deputies are convinced that the people who are the “lifeblood” of France are leaving because of “the impression that it’s impossible to succeed”, said Luc Chatel, secretary general of the UMP, who chaired the commission. There is “an anti-work mentality, absurd fiscal pressure, a lack of promotion prospects, and the burden of debt hanging over future generations,” he told Le Figaro.
That is France in a nutshell. No other country in Europe, not even Sweden, has been able to combine welfare-state entitlements with ideologically driven labor market regulations to the extent that the French have. (In Sweden, labor market law delegates the right to regulate the labor market to the unions instead, effectively elevating them to government power without government accountability.) But this is not the work of two years of socialism under President Hollande – it has been very long in the making. Alas, the Independent continues:
However, the report’s author Yann Galut, a Socialist deputy, said the UMP was unhappy because it had been unable to prove that a “massive exile” had taken place since the election of President François Hollande in 2012. What is certain is the steady rise in the number of emigrants across all sections of society, from young people looking for jobs to entrepreneurs to pensioners. According to a French Foreign Ministry report published at the end of last month, the top five destinations are the UK, Switzerland, the US, Belgium and Germany.
So here we have the explanation of why the French government is now scrambling to cut taxes. Their tax increases were the straw that broke the camel’s back. By raising the top income tax bracket to a confiscatory 75 percent they gave tens of thousands of entrepreneurs, medical doctors, computer engineers, finance experts, investors and business executives the final reason they needed to leave the country. As a result, tax revenue from the punitive taxes introduced under Hollande are nowhere near what the socialist government had planned for. As a result there is less money in government coffers to pay for the same socialist government’s entitlements.
The smaller-than-planned revenue stream in combination with larger-than-affordable entitlement spending opens up a budget deficit. The French government is already in breach of the EU balanced-budget law, often referred to as the Stability and Growth Pact. A self-inflicted escalation of the deficit puts Hollande in direct confrontation with the EU Commission, which is already loudly complaining that France seems perennially unable to bring its deficit down under the ceiling of three percent of GDP mandated by the aforementioned Pact.
Back now to the Independent for some more details on the French exodus:
Hélène Charveriat, the delegate-general of the Union of French Citizens Abroad … told The Independent that while the figure of 2.5 million expatriates is “not enormous”, what is more troubling is the increase of about 2 per cent each year. “Young people feel stuck, and they want interesting jobs. Businessmen say the labour code is complex and they’re taxed even before they start working. Pensioners can also pay less tax abroad,” she says.
Wait… what was that?
Businessmen say the labour code is complex and they’re taxed even before they start working.
Those evil capitalists. Two 20-year-old guys from working class homes have a passion for fixing people’s cars. They decide to open their own shop and start by working their way through the onerous French bureaucratic grinds to get their business permit. (I know someone who tried that. A story in and of itself. I’ll see if he wants to tell it in his own words.) Once they have the permit they scrape together whatever cash they can, buy some used tools and put down two months rent on a garage at a closed-down gas station. While they get the tools together, find the garage and get everything set up they obviously have no revenue. But that does not stop The People’s Friendly Government from showing up at their doorsteps to collect taxes on money they have not yet made.
These two young Frenchmen do not exist. And if they did, they would move to England and open their shop there instead, thus joining the growing outflow of driven, productive Frenchmen from all walks of life. But it is actually good that the Independent is less interested in reporting on the young French expatriates and instead puts focus on the country’s hate-the-rich taxes:
As for high-earners, almost 600 people subject to a wealth tax on assets of more than €800,000 (£630,000) left France in 2012, 20 per cent more than the previous year.
Governments in high-tax countries rarely pay any attention to the outflow of their young, productive and aspiring citizens. The argument is that those young people don’t pay much taxes anyway. Right now. Of course, if they are allowed to work and build careers and businesses instead of emigrating, they will become wealthy and create lots of jobs in the future. That, however, is a perspective that big-government proponents notoriously overlook. Therefore, there is really just one way to explain to them what harm their punitive tax policies do, and that is to shed light on the exodus of wealthy, productive people happening right now. Such news can actually work.
As indicated by my earlier article on the desperate French tax cuts, it may already be working. The French government cannot ignore forever how its combination of a wealth tax and a 75-percent tax on top incomes destroy existing jobs and, more importantly, solidly and decisively prevents the creation of new ones. They cannot forever dwell in the delusion that government somehow can raise GDP growth above the current level of zero percent, and they certainly cannot use government to create jobs for the more than ten percent of the work force that are currently unemployed.
It remains to be seen how sincere the French socialist government is about reversing course. It is by no means certain that the newly announced tax cuts mark a turning point. It could just as well be that they are mere token gestures, aimed at giving false hope of a better future to new prospective emigrants.
Almost everywhere you look in Europe there is unrelenting support for a continuation of policies that preserve big government. Hell-bent on saving their welfare state, the leaders of both the EU and the member states stubbornly push for either more government-saving austerity or more government-saving spending. In both cases the end result is the same: fiscal policy puts government above the private sector and leads the entire continent into industrial poverty.
Monetary policy is also designed for the same purpose, which has now placed Europe in the liquidity trap and a potentially lethal deflation spiral. The European Central Bank is fearful of a future with declining prices, thus pumping out new money supply to somehow re-ignite inflation. In doing so they are copying a tried-and-failed Japanese strategy, on which Forbes magazine commented in April after news came out that prices had turned a corner in the Land of the Rising Sun:
Japan’s government and central bank are likely to get much more inflation than they bargained for. This risks a sharp spike in interest rates and a bond market rout, with investors fleeing amid concerns about the government’s ability to repay its enormous debt load. In the ultimate irony, it may not be the deflationary bogey man which finally kills the Japanese economy. Rather, it could be the inflation so beloved by central bankers and economists that does it.
This is a good point. Monetary inflation is an entirely different phenomenon than real-sector inflation. The latter is anchored in actual economic activity, i.e., production, consumption, trade and investment. It emerges because basic, universally understood free-market mechanisms go to work: demand is bigger than supply. This classic situation keeps inflation under control because prices will only rise so long as producers and sellers can turn a profit; if they raise prices too much they attract new supply and profit margins shrink or vanish.
Monetary inflation is a different phenomenon, based not in real-sector activity but in artificially created spending power. I am not going to go into detail on how that works; for an elaborate explanation of monetary inflation, please see my articles on Venezuela. However, it is important to remember what kind of inflation European central bankers seem to be dreaming of. As they see it, monetary inflation is the last line of defense against a deflation death spiral, regardless of what is happening in Japan.
They may be right. Again, there is almost unanimous support among Europe’s political elite that whatever policies they choose, the overarching goal is to preserve the welfare state. However, there is a very remote chance that something is about to happen on that front. And it is coming from an unlikely corner of the continent – consider this story from France, reported by the EU Observer:
France has put itself on a collision course with its EU partners after rejecting calls for it to adopt further austerity measures to bring its budget deficit in line with EU rules. Outlining plans for 2015 on Wednesday (1 October), President Francois Hollande’s government said that “no further effort will be demanded of the French, because the government — while taking the fiscal responsibility needed to put the country on the right track — rejects austerity.” The budget sets out a programme of spending cuts worth €50 billion over the next three years, but will result in France not hitting the EU’s target of a budget deficit of 3 percent or less until 2017, four years later than initially forecast.
In the beginning, Holland stuck to his socialist guns, trying to grow government spending and raise taxes. However, he soon changed his mind and combined tax hikes with cuts in government spending, as per demands from the EU Commission. Now he is taking yet another step away from established fiscal policy norms by combining spending cuts, albeit limited ones, with tax cuts – yes, tax cuts:
The savings will offset tax cuts for businesses worth €40 billion in a bid to incentivise firms to hire more workers and reduce the unemployment rate. In a statement on Wednesday, finance minister Michel Sapin said the government had decided to “adapt the pace of deficit reduction to the economic situation of the country.”
The “adaptation” rhetoric is the same as the French socialists had when they took office two years ago. What has changed is the purpose: back then their fiscal strategy was entirely to grow government – because according to socialist doctrine government and only government can get anything done in this world. Now they are actually a bit concerned with the economic conditions of the private sector.
This goes to show how desperate Europe’s policy makers are becoming. In the French case it is entirely possible that Hollande is willing to become a born-again capitalist in order to keep Marine Le Pen out of the Elysee Palace. After all, the next presidential election is only three years out. But it really does not matter what Hollande’s motives are, so long as he gets his fiscal policy right.
The EU Observer again:
Last year, France was given a two-year extension by the European Commission to bring its deficit in line by 2015, but abandoned the target earlier this summer. It now forecasts that its deficit will be 4.3 percent next year. The country’s debt pile has also risen to 95 percent of GDP, well above the 60 percent limit set out in the EU’s stability and growth pact. Meanwhile, Paris has revised down its growth forecast from 1 percent to 0.4 percent over the whole of 2014, and cut its projection for 2015 to 1 percent from 1.7 percent. It does not expect to reach a 2 percent growth rate until 2019.
This is serious stuff but hardly surprising. I predict this perennial stagnation in my new book Industrial Poverty. And, as I point out in my book, a growth rate at two percent per year only keeps people’s standard of living from declining- it maintains a state of economic stagnation. There will be no new jobs created, welfare rolls won’t shrink and standard of living will not improve. For that it takes a lot more than two percent GDP growth per year.
Hollande’s new openness to – albeit minuscule – tax cuts should be viewed against the backdrop of this very serious outlook. He will probably not succeed, as the tax cuts are so small compared to the total tax burden, and the tax-cut package is not combined with labor-market deregulation. But the mere fact that he is willing to try this shows that there is at least a faint glimpse of hope for a thought revolution among Europe’s political leaders. Maybe, just maybe, they may come around and realize that their welfare statism is taking them deeper and deeper into eternal industrial poverty.
Europe keeps struggling with its impossible balanced-budget endeavor.
In a desperate attempt to save the welfare state while also balancing the government budget they keep destroying economic opportunity for their entrepreneurs and households. This leads to panic-driven spending cuts combined with higher taxes, the worst alternative of all routes available to a balanced budget. The reason – and I keep emphasizing this ad nauseam – is that they desperately do not want to remove the deficit-driving spending programs.
To break out of the shackles of their self-imposed welfare-statist version of austerity, some European politicians have suggested that the EU needs to revise the rules under which member states are brought into compliance with the Union’s balanced-budget amendment. This is not viewed kindly among the Eurocrats in Brussels. From Euractiv:
The European Commission will not let EU budget discipline rules be flouted, incoming economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici said on Monday (29 September), days after his former colleagues in the French government said Paris would again miss EU targets. Last year, European Union finance ministers gave Paris an extra two years to bring its budget deficit below the EU ceiling of 3% of national output after France missed a 2013 deadline in what is called the ‘excessive deficit procedure’. But earlier this month, the French government said it would not meet the new 2015 deadline either and instead would reduce its budget shortfall below 3% only in 2017.
They certainly could meet the deadline, and they could do it even faster than proposed. All they would need to do would be to chainsaw the entire government budget until what is left fits within the three-percent rule. However, they know they cannot do that, for two reasons. The first is simple macroeconomics: so long as you do not cut taxes, any spending cuts will mean government takes more from the private sector and, relatively speaking, gives less back. That reduces private-sector activity and thus exacerbates the recession.
The second reason is that when half or more of the population depend on government for survival, you can only do so many spending cuts before they set the country on fire. The solution is a predictable way out of dependency, one that gives people an opportunity to become self sufficient without suffering undue, immediate financial hardship. That excludes tax hikes and sudden spending cuts – but on the other hand it mandates structural spending cuts that permanently terminate entitlement programs.
However, this solution to their unending economic crisis keeps eluding Europe’s policy makers.
Europe’s political leaders are getting increasingly desperate, especially since the European Central Bank’s aggressively expansionary monetary policy is proving ineffective. The more money the ECB prints, the worse the euro-zone economy performs.
The desperation is now at such a level that even the president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, is calling for EU governments to start big spending programs. Writes Benjamin Fox at EU Observer:
The European Central Bank (ECB) is preparing to step up its attempts to breathe life into the eurozone’s stagnant economy. During a speech in the US on Friday (22 August), ECB chief Mario Draghi called on eurozone treasuries to take fresh steps to stimulate demand amid signs that the bloc’s tepid recovery is stalling. “It may be useful to have a discussion on the overall fiscal stance of the euro area,” Draghi told delegates at a meeting of financiers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, adding that governments should shift towards “a more growth-friendly overall fiscal stance.” “The risks of ‘doing too little’…outweigh those of ‘doing too much’”, he added.
Some trivia first. If you want to be rich, you have a condo on Manhattan. If you actually are rich, you have an oceanfront property in West Palm Beach. If you are genuinely wealthy you have a second home in Jackson Hole. The only people who live in Jackson Hole permanently are dyed-in-the-wool Wyomingites like former Vice President Dick Cheney (a very nice man whom I have had the honor of meeting a couple of times). It is a cold place with short, mildly warm summers and long, unforgiving winters. It is also breathtakingly beautiful.
Now for the real story… There is no doubt that Draghi is beyond worried. He should be: his monetary policy is useless. Europe is in the liquidity trap, and the European Central Bank’s expansionist monetary policy is part of the reason for this. For almost a year now Draghi has pushed the ECB to arrogantly violate the principles upon which the Bank was founded. He has printed money at a pace that by comparison almost makes Ben Bernanke look like a monetarist scrooge. More importantly, the ECB has de facto bailed out euro-zone countries even though that is very much against the statutes upon which the bank was founded. They have pushed interest rates through the floor, punishing banks for overnight lending to the bank, and they have a formal Quantitative Easing program in their back pocket.
Furthermore, the ECB was an active party in the austerity programs designed to save Europe’s welfare states in the midst of the crisis. Those programs exacerbated the crisis by suppressing activity in the private sector in order to make the welfare states look fiscally sustainable. Now Draghi is asking the same governments that he helped bully into austerity to stop trying to save their welfare states and instead be concerned with GDP growth.
Superficially this sounds like an opening toward a fiscal policy that uses private-sector metrics to measure its success. However, it is highly doubtful that Draghi and, especially, the governments of the EU’s member states, would be ready to actually do what is needed to get the European economy growing again. The first part of such a strategy would be to a combination of tax cuts and reforms to reduce and eventually eliminate the massive, redistributive entitlement programs that constitute Europe’s welfare states.
The second thing needed is a monetary policy that does not provide those same welfare states with a large supply of liquidity. The more cheap money welfare states have access to, the less inclined their governments are going to be to want to reform away their entitlement programs. On the contrary, they are going to want to preserve those programs as best they can.
Therefore, the last thing the ECB wants to do right now is to launch a QE program. Which, as the EU Observer story reports, is exactly what the ECB has in mind:
The Frankfurt-based bank is preparing to belatedly follow the lead of the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England by launching its own programme of quantitative easing (QE) – creating money to buy financial assets.
This comes on the heels of the Bank’s new policy to increase credit supply to commercial banks on the condition that they in turn increase lending to non-financial corporations. The bizarre part of this is that in an economy that is stagnant at best, contracting at worst, there is no demand for more credit among non-financial corporations. It really does not matter if banks throw money after manufacturers, trucking companies, real estate developers… they are not going to expand their businesses unless there is someone there to buy their goods and services. If there is no buyer out there, why waste time and money on producing the product – and why take on debt to do it?
I have reported in numerous articles recently on how the European economy is not going anywhere. Growth is anemic with a negative outlook. Unemployment is stuck at almost twice the U.S. level and the overall fiscal situation of EU member states has not improved one iota despite more than three years of harsh, welfare-state saving austerity.
As yet more evidence of a stagnant Europe, Eurostat’s flash inflation estimate for August says prices increased by 0.3 percent on an annual basis. This is a further weakening of inflation and reinforces my point that unless the European economy starts moving again, it will find itself in actual deflation very soon. But the macroeconomic consequences of deflation set in earlier than formal deflation, as economic agents build it into their expectations. It looks very much as if that has now happened.
Deflation is dangerous, but it is not a problem in itself. It is a very serious symptom of an economy in depression. It is important to follow the causal chain backward and understand how the macroeconomic system brings about deflation. This blog provides that analysis; very few others attempt to do so. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard over at the good British newspaper Guardian has demonstrated good insight, and a recent article by David Brady and Michael Spence of the Hoover Institution provided some very important perspectives. But so far insights about the systemic nature of the crisis are not very widely spread.
The only advice being dispensed with some consistency is, as mentioned, the one about more government spending. Dan Steinbock of the India, China and America Institute is an example of the growing choir behind that idea. He does so, however, in a somewhat convoluted fashion. In an opinion piece for the EU Observer he discusses the macroeconomic differences between Europe and America, though in a fashion that almost makes you believe he is a regular reader of this blog:
Half a decade after the financial crisis, the United States is recovering, but Europe is suffering a lost decade. Why? In the second quarter, the US economy grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4 percent, surpassing expectations. In the same time period, economic growth in the eurozone slowed to a halt (0.2%), well before the impact of the sanctions imposed on and by Russia over Ukraine. Germany’s economy contracted (-0.6%). France’s continued to stagnate (-0.1%) and Italy’s took a dive (-0.8%). How did this new status quo come about?
He is correct about the American economy widening its gap vs. Europe, he is correct about the Italian economy, about the French economy, and about the stagnant nature of the euro-zone economy. What he does not get right is his answer to the question why the European economy has once again ground to a halt:
[In] the eurozone, real GDP growth contracted last year and shrank in the ongoing second quarter, while inflation plunged to a 4.5 year low. Europe’s core economies performed dismally. In Germany, foreign trade and investment were the weak spots. The country could still achieve close to 2 percent growth in 2014-2016 until growth is likely to decelerate to 1.5 percent by late decade. In France, President Francois Hollande has already pledged €30 billion in tax breaks and hopes to cut public spending by €50 billion by 2017. Nevertheless, French growth stayed in 0.1-0.2 percent in the 1st quarter.
Then Steinbock proceeds to make a brave attempt to explain the depth of the European economic crisis:
Fiscal austerity and falling consumer confidence are preventing domestic demand from rebounding, while investment and jobs linger in the private sector. Pierre Gattaz, head of the largest employers union in France, has called the economic situation “catastrophic.” As France is at a standstill, Paris has all but scrapped the target to shrink its deficit. … The new stance is to avoid an explicit confrontation with Germany, but to redefine austerity vis-à-vis budgetary reforms.
It is unclear what Steinbock means by this. He appears to miss the point that there are two kinds of austerity: that which aims to save government and that which aims to grow the private sector. The two are mutually exclusive, both in theory and in practice. One might suspect that Steinbock refers to the government-first version, since that is the prevailing version in Europe. However, that makes it even more unclear what Steinbock has in mind when he talks about “budgetary reforms” – an educated guess would be the relaxation of the Stability and Growth Pact so that the French government, among others, can spend more frivolously.
Such a relaxation would not contribute anything for the better. All it would do is open for more government spending. Steinbock does not make entirely clear whether or not he recommends more government spending. His article, however, seems to lean in favor of that, and I strongly disagree with him on that point for reasons I have explained on many occasions. Let’s just summarize by noting that if Europe is going to replace government-first austerity with government-first spending, then it opens up an entirely new dimension of the continent’s crisis. That dimension is in itself so ominous it requires its own detailed analysis.
Europe’s version of austerity has been designed exclusively to save the continent’s big welfare states in very tough economic times. By raising taxes and cutting spending, governments in Greece, Spain, Italy and other EU member states have hoped to make their welfare states more slim-fit and compatible with a smaller tax base. The metric they have used for their austerity policies is not that the private sector would grow as a result – on the contrary, private-sector activity has been of no concern under government-first austerity. Unemployment has skyrocketed, private-sector activity has plummeted and Europe is in worse shape today than it was in 2011, right before the Great Big Austerity Purge of 2012.
The criticism of austerity was massive, but not in the legitimate form we would expect: instead of pointing to the complete neglect of private-sector activity, Europe’s austerity critics have focused entirely on the spending cuts to entitlement programs. While such cuts are necessary for Europe’s future, they cannot be executed in a panic-style fashion – they should be structural and remove, not shrink, spending programs. Furthermore, they cannot be combined with tax hikes: when you take away people’s entitlements you need to cut, not raise, taxes so they can afford to replace the entitlements with private-funded solutions. Tax hikes, needless to say, drain dry the private sector and exacerbate the recession that produced the need for austerity in the first place.
This is a very simple analysis of what is going on in Europe. It is simple yet accurate: my predictions throughout 2012, 2013 and so far through 2014 have been that there will be no recovery in Europe unless and until they replace government-first austerity with private-sector austerity. This means, plain and simple, that you stop using government-saving metrics as measurement of austerity success and instead focus on the growth of the private sector. This will rule out tax hikes and dictate very different types of spending cuts, namely those that permanently terminate government spending programs.
Unfortunately, this aspect of austerity is absent in Europe. All that is heard is criticism from socialists who want to keep the tax hikes but combine them with more government spending. A continuation, in other words, of what originally caused the current economic crisis (that’s right – it was not a financial crisis). These socialists won big in the French elections two years ago, gaining both the Elysee Palace and a majority in the national parliament. However, faced with the harsh economic realities of the Great Recession, they soon found that spending-as-usual was not a very good idea. At the same time, they have rightly seen the problems with the kind of government-first austerity that has been common fiscal practice in Europe. Now that their own agenda is proving to be as destructive as government-first austerity, France’s socialists do not know which way to turn anymore. This has led to a political crisis of surprisingly large proportions. Reports the EU Observer:
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday (25 August) tendered his government’s resignation after more leftist ministers voiced criticism to what is being perceived as German-imposed austerity. The embattled French President, Francois Hollande, whose popularity ratings are only 17 percent, accepted the resignation and tasked Valls to form a new cabinet by Tuesday, the Elysee palace said in a press release. “The head of state has asked him [Valls] to form a team in line with the orientation he has defined for our country,” the statement added – a reference to further budget cuts needed for France to rein in its public deficit.
From the perspective of the European Union, France has been the bad boy in the classroom, not getting with the government-first austerity programs that have worked so well in Greece (lost one fifth of its GDP) and Spain (second highest youth unemployment in the EU). Hollande’s main problem is that by not getting his economy back growing again he is jeopardizing the future of the euro, in two ways. First, perpetual stagnation with zero GDP growth has forced the European Central Bank into a reckless money-supply policy with negative interest rates on bank deposits and a de facto endless commitment to printing money. This alone is reason for the euro to sink, and the only remedy would be that the economies of the euro zone started growing again. Secondly, by exacerbating the recession in France, and by failing endemically to deliver on his promises of more growth and more jobs, Hollande is setting himself up to lose the 2017 presidential election to Marine Le Pen. First on her agenda is to pull France out of the euro; if the zone loses its second-biggest economy, what reasons are there for smaller economies like Greece to stay?
This is why he has now shifted policy foot, from the spending-as-usual strategy of 2012 to government-first austerity. But since neither is good for the private sector, frustration is rising within the ranks of France’s socialists to a point where it could cause a crippling political crisis. Euractiv again:
The rebel minister, Arnaud Montebourg, who had held the economy portfolio until Monday, over the weekend criticised his Socialist government for being too German-friendly. “France is a free country which shouldn’t be aligning itself with the obsessions of the German right,” he said at a Socialist rally on Sunday, urging a “just and sane resistance”. The day before, he gave an interview to Le Monde in which he claimed that Germany had “imposed” a policy of austerity across Europe and that other countries should speak out against it. Two more ministers, Benoit Hamon in charge of education and culture minister Aurelie Fillipetti, also rallied around Montebourg and said they will not seek a post in the new cabinet. In a resignation letter addressed to Hollande and Valls, Fillipetti accused them of betraying their voters and abandoning left-wing policies, at a time when the populist National Front is gaining ground everywhere. According to Le Parisien, Valls forced Hollande to let go of Montebourg by telling him “it’s either him or me.”
Ironically, the main difference between the socialist economic policies and those of the National Front is that the latter want to reintroduce the franc while the former want to stay with the euro. Other than that, the National Front wants to preserve the welfare state, though significantly cut down on the number of non-Europeans who are allowed to benefit from it. The socialists also want to preserve the welfare state, but also open the door for more non-European immigration.
In short, the differences between socialist and nationalist economic policy is limited to nuances. Needless to say, neither will help France back to growth and prosperity.
Meanwhile, according to the Euractiv story there is mounting pressure from outside France on President Hollande to stick with the government-first austerity program:
[The] government turmoil is also a sign of diverging views on how to tackle the country’s economic woes. French unemployment is at nearly 11 percent and growth in 2014 is forecast to be of only 0.5 percent. Meanwhile, French officials have already said the deficit will again surpass EU’s 3 percent target, and are negotiating another delay with the European Commission. The commission declined to comment on the new developments in France, with a spokeswoman saying they are “aware” and “in contact” with the French government. German chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday during a visit to Spain declined to comment directly about the change in government, but said she wishes “the French president success with his reform agenda.” Both Merkel and Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy defended the need for further austerity and economic reforms, saying this boosted economic growth.
Growth – where? What growth is he talking about? But more important than the erroneous statement that the European economy is benefiting from attempts to save the welfare state, France is now becoming the focal point of more than just the future of the current European version of austerity. The struggle between socialists and competing brands of statism is a concentrate of a more general political trend in Europe. The way France goes, the way Europe will go. While the outcome of the statist competition will make a difference to immigration policy, it won’t change the general course of the economy. Both factions, nationalists and socialists, want to keep the welfare state and therefore preserve the very cause of Europe’s economic stagnation (which by the way is now in its sixth year).
Europe needs a libertarian renaissance. Its entrepreneurs, investors and workers need to stand up together and say “Laissez-nous faire!” with one voice. Then, and only then, will they elevate Europe back to where she belongs, namely at the top of the world’s prosperity league.
When do you stop talking about an economy as being in a recession, and when do you start talking about it as being in a state of permanent stagnation? How many years of microscopic growth does it take before economic stagnation becomes the new normal to people?
Since 2012 I have said that Europe is in a state of permanent economic stagnation. So far I am the only one making that analysis, but hopefully my new book will change that. After all, the real world economy provide pieces of evidence almost on a daily basis, showing that I am right. Today, e.g., the EU Observer explains:
France has all but abandoned a target to shrink its deficit, as the eurozone endured a turbulent day that raised the prospect of a triple-dip recession. Figures published by Eurostat on Thursday (14 August) indicated that the eurozone economy flatlined between April and June, while the EU-28 saw 0.2 percent growth.
I reported on this last week. These numbers are not surprising: the European economy simply has no reason to recover.
The EU Observer again:
Germany, France, and Italy … account for around two thirds of the eurozone’s output. Germany’s output fell by 0.2 percent, the same as Italy, which announced its second quarter figures last week. France recorded zero growth for the second successive quarter, while finance minister Michel Sapin suggested that the country’s deficit would exceed 4 percent this year, missing its European Commission-sanctioned 3.8 percent target.
And that target is a step back from the Stability and Growth Pact, which stipulated a deficit cap of three percent of GDP. It also puts a 60-percent-of-GDP cap on government debt, but that part seems to have been forgotten a long, long time ago.
What is really going on here is a slow but steady erosion of the Stability and Growth Pact. Over the past 6-8 months there have been a number of “suggestions” circulating the European political scene, about abolishing or at least comprehensively reforming the Pact. The general idea is that the Pact is getting in the way of government spending, needed to pull the European economy out of the recession.
No such government spending is needed. The European economy is standing still not because there is too little government spending, but because there is too much. I do not believe, however, that this insight will penetrate the policy-making circles of the European Union any time soon.
Back to the EU Observer:
In an article in Le Monde on Thursday (14 August), [French finance minister] Sapin abandoned the target, commenting that “It is better to admit what is than to hope for what won’t be.” France would cut its deficit “at an appropriate pace,” he added in a radio interview with Europe 1. … Sapin’s admission is another setback for beleaguered President Francois Hollande, who made hitting the 3 percent deficit target spelt out in the EU’s stability and growth pact by 2013 one of his key election pledges in 2012. Paris has now revised down its growth forecast from 1 percent to 0.5 percent over the whole of 2014, and cut its projection for 2015 to 1 percent from 1.7 percent.
Let me make this point again: instead of asking when the European economy is going to get back to growth again, it is time to ask if the European economy has any reason at all to get back to growth. As I explain in my new book, there is no such reason so long as the welfare state remains in place.
From a macroeconomic viewpoint Illinois is one of the worst-performing U.S. states. A big reason is the high taxes, by U.S. comparison, that drive jobs and businesses to other states. Illinois has raised its taxes more times than I care to count, with a “temporary” income-tax increase in 2011 that (huge surprise) has turned out to be permanent. States neighboring Illinois have been quick to capitalize on The Prairie State’s suicidal tax policy, with some crafty people in Indiana putting up this billboard at the state line:
The image is not mine. It was the thumbnail for a policy paper by the Illinois Policy Institute, a hard-working free-market think tank in Chicago. I chose to borrow it because it illustrates the campaign by Indiana to attract tax-weary Illinoisans. In doing so, Indiana participates in one of the most important economic activities of our time: tax competition. Since there is completely free movement of people and capital across state lines in the United States, the decisions by families and businesses where to reside and work is governed to a relatively large degree by factors such as the tax burden. High-tax states (count Illinois among them) lose jobs and investments to low-tax states.
Politicians who want to build big governments can then sell their welfare states to taxpayers as best they can – if taxpayers prefer to keep more of their own money, and pay for more of their own consumption directly out of their own pocket, then they can choose to do so.
Tax competition fulfills two major purposes. (For an excellent introduction to tax competition, please visit this site over at Center for Freedom and Prosperity.) The first purpose is to keep the free-market sector of the economy alive. When people make decisions to move, look for jobs or invest based in part on differences in taxation, it keeps us as economic agents on alert. We do not slouch on the job, we watch for better opportunities and thereby take responsibility for ourselves and those who depend on us.
The second purpose is to put a cap on the growth, and ideally size, of government. If people can vote with their feet – or money – then government will at some point have to reconsider its plans to expand with yet more tax hikes.
Which explains why there is such widespread contempt for tax competition among lawmakers, both in the United States and in Europe. The latest expression of that contempt comes from (another huge surprise) France, where socialist politicians want to do away with tax competition altogether, at least within the EU. Reports Euractiv:
Paris has long backed the idea of an across-the-board harmonisation of EU member states’ tax systems. According to French government advisors, this must begin by a common tax base for the European banking sector, EurActiv France reports. … Those in favour of harmonisation have a mountain to climb, but have not backed away from the challenge.
Fortunately, there is still a shred of common sense to be shared among some in Europe:
Experts across Europe oppose a common tax system on the basis that competition between tax systems is positive and forces governments to be more efficient.
This, however, has not prevented government expansionists from making the most absurd arguments for abolishing tax competition. Euractiv again:
France has one of the highest levels of income tax in Europe and the government argues that low tax rates prevent the smooth working of the European Common Market. Earlier this year French President François Hollande said he wanted “harmonisation with our largest neighbours by 2020.” In a report titled Tax Harmonisation in Europe: Moving Forward, the [French government’s economic advisory council] CAE proposed three ways to tackle the negative effects of fiscal competition.
The very idea that low tax rates prevent “the smooth working” of the free market in the EU is patently absurd. The argument is based on the notion that when tax rates are the same everywhere, businesses make decisions based not on taxes but on “real” business matters. But that notion disregards the fact that government is an active player in the economy, and that its services – while provided inefficiently under a coercion-based monopoly – are like most other services in the economy. I can choose to buy tax-paid services from the New York state government, or from the state of Wyoming, just as I can choose to bank with Warren Federal Credit Union or First Interstate Bank, or to buy my insurance products from Farmers, GEICO or any other insurance company.
Since government is an active player in our economy, it must be subjected to the same free-market conditions as the rest of us, as far as that is possible.
However, as we go back to the Euractiv piece we learn that this is not a concept that European statists are willing to entertain:
The first measure is to continue efforts for a common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB). Harmonising tax systems would make “fiscal competition more transparent and healthier,” says Agnès Bénassy-Quéré. According to Alain Trannoy, an economist who co-wrote the report, a CCCTB should be based on “reinforced cooperation or with some countries like Germany, France, the Benelux states and Italy, in order to create a snowball effect in different Eurozone countries.” Harmonising tax bases would also reduce the risks of optimisation, when multinationals transfer their revenues from one country to another in order to benefit from lower corporate tax. “Corporate tax is an important element, but there is no point if tax bases are not harmonised,” said Alain Trannoy.
And now for the three-dollar bill question: once these high-tax EU states succeed in creating a high-tax cartel, what is going to happen with the tax rates?
a) They will go up,
b) They will go up, or
c) They will go up.
You may choose whichever answer you want, so long as your choice is harmonized with the answers you do not choose.
According to the authors, the Banking Union, which was adopted in April, needs to go further in the area of taxation. This can be done with a Single Financial Activity Tax (FAT) in Europe. They also advocate a minimum corporate income tax for the banking sector, the receipts of which should be reinvested into infrastructure and long term investments and “form the first building block of a euro area budget.”
And there you have it. The real purpose behind this is to build yet another level of government spending. While it sounds noble to invest in “infrastructure” and the like, this is, after all Europe. Therefore, it is a safe bet to foresee that if this new level of government were ever to be created, its spending would go primarily toward yet more entitlement programs in an even more complex welfare state. Let’s keep in mind that there are already politicians on the left flank of European politics who are pushing hard for harmonized entitlement programs across the EU. What better venue for that harmonization than a full-fledged, EU-level welfare state?
And as we all immediately understand, the world’s largest welfare state, which has not solved all the alleged problems of inequality and poverty it was created to solve, must therefore obviously become a lot bigger.
Out there, on the outer left rim of unabridged statism, the question “when is government big enough?” simply does not have an answer. With the next EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs likely being a socialist, this unanswered question is going to have serious consequences for Europe. Its current journey into industrial poverty, paved by the world’s most sloth-inducing entitlement systems and fueled by the world’s highest taxes, apparently is not going fast enough.
In last week’s elections, did Europe’s voters plant the seeds of a post-EU Europe? The question has surfaced in response to the strong showing of Euroskeptics and outright anti-EU parties across the continent. While most observers of European politics are still at loss trying to comprehend the fact that some of their fellow citizens actually don’t like the EU, some sharp-minded analysts see the writing on the wall for what it actually is. In addition to Yours Truly, you can always trust Daily Telegraph columnist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. Again, he has elevated himself above the murmur. Starting with Britain, he gradually expands his perspective, laying out a credible scenario for Europe’s future:
If Europe’s policy elites could not quite believe it before, they must now know beyond much doubt that they have lost Britain. This island is no longer part of the European project in any meaningful sense. British defenders of the status quo were knouted on Sunday. UKIP won 27.5pc of the vote … Margaret Thatcher’s Tory children are scarcely more friendly to the EU enterprise.
This is an important observation. The British vote shows two things: first, that British democracy, unlike continental Europe’s, still has not succumbed to Europhoristic centralism – on the contrary, Brits still believe in their traditions and their way of governing themselves; secondly, classical Anglo-Saxian liberalism still has a voice in Britain.
The second point carries more weight than perhaps even the Brits themselves realize. Deep down, UKIP’s ideology is a mild version of what we here in America refer to as “libertarianism”, namely a solid refutation of all government beyond a small set of strictly contained and enumerated core functions. A UKIP prime minister would never pursue the termination of the British welfare state, but he would most likely revive some of Thatcher’s legacy, a legacy that has been carefully squandered by the Conservatives.
Britain needs more Thatcherism. Europe could use a big dose of it as well. Hopefully, an invigorated UKIP can deliver that, with the right cooperation in the European Parliament.
Back to Evans-Pritchard:
Britain’s decision to stay out of monetary union at Maastricht sowed the seeds of separation, as pro-Europeans fully understood at the time, though almost nobody expected EMU officialdom to clinch the argument so emphatically by running the currency bloc into the ground with 1930s Gold Standard policies and youth unemployment levels above 50pc in Spain and Greece, and above 40pc in Italy. European leaders must henceforth calculate that the British people will vote to leave the EU altogether unless offered an entirely new dispensation: tariff-free access to the single market along the lines already enjoyed by Turkey or Tunisia; and deliverance from half the Acquis Communautaire, that 170,000-page edifice of directives and regulations that drains away sovereignty, and is never repealed.
In a nutshell, Evans-Pritchard is saying that the euro was doomed without Britain’s participation – a statement that is only partially correct. The structural imbalance of the euro project goes deeper than that. But more on that later. Evans-Pritchard refers to reckless austerity policies as having removed the fiscal and, especially, monetary policy foundations for a sound, strong common currency. He is right about austerity, as regular readers of this blog know; the Liberty Bullhorn contains more analysis of Europe’s austerity policies and their consequences than any other website in the world.
But even if we disregard the structural imbalances built into the euro project, it is important to note that the ECB has exacerbated the crisis by frivolously printing money right, left, up and down to save credit-crashing welfare states from fiscal ruin. If there is one single policy move that really drove the pole through the heart of the euro, it was the ECB’s decision to bail out its worst-rated welfare states. That open-ended commitment to print money reduced the euro from Deutsch Mark status to something of a business-class Drakhma.
Evans-Pritchard also makes a note of the ever-growing regulatory burden on EU’s member states. In this category, the EU is competing with the Obama administration, though in the latter case things have slowed down considerably in the last couple of years. Also, it is increasingly likely that the next president of the United States will have libertarian roots – probably stronger than those of UKIP leader Nigel Farage – which will vouch for a historic regulatory rollback. For that to happen in Britain, the country has to leave the EU.
Which, again, is probably going to happen in the next few years. Now for the broader perspective, and Evans-Pritchard’s analysis of where France is heading:
It is a fair bet that EU leaders would search for an amicable formula, letting Britain go its own way while remaining a semi-detached or merely titular member of the EU. Let us call it the Holy Roman Empire solution. Yet Britain is the least of their problems. The much greater shock is the “Seisme” in France, as Le Figaro calls it, where Marine Le Pen’s Front National swept 73 electoral departments, while President Francois Hollande’s socialists were reduced to two. … It is widely claimed that the Front is eurosceptic only on the surface. Perhaps, but when I asked Mrs. Le Pen what she would do no her first day in office if she ever reached the Elysee Palace, her reply was trenchant. She would instruct the French Treasury to draft plans for the immediate restoration of the franc… She vowed to confront Europe’s leaders with a stark choice at their first meeting: either to work with France for a “sortie concertee” or coordinated EMU break-up, or resist and let “financial Armageddon” run its course. … She said there can be no compromise with monetary union, deeming it impossible to remain a self-governing nation within the structures of EMU, and impossible to carry out the reflation policies necessary to defeat the economic slump.
Given that the Front National has suffered no notable setback in national voter support over the past decade, but instead gradually grown stronger, the prospect of a Madame President Le Pen is one that both Europe and the United States should get used to. Therefore, as Evans-Pritchard rightly explains, it is also time to get used to the prospect of Europe returning to national currencies.
The one point in this that I disagree with is that reflation is the way out of the recession. More on that in a moment. First, one more point from Evans-Pritchard, this one about the future of the euro with rising Euro-skepticism among voters:
The euro will inevitably lurch from crisis to crisis without some form of fiscal union and debt pooling. Yet voters have just let forth a primordial scream against any further transfers of power.
Indeed. So long as there is any form of government involved in the economy, there has to be a fiscal policy tied to that currency. Furthermore, so long as there is a welfare state there will be government deficits, either in recessions or on a structural basis as has been the case in Europe and the United States for decades now. Such deficits will be denominated in a currency, and that currency has to be the same that the government accepts for, e.g., tax payments, as well as the same currency that they use to pay out entitlements. In other words, there has to be a jurisdictional overlap between a currency and a fiscal government, or else the currency inevitably becomes unstable.
Some of these points were made by economists, among them Robert Mundell, already 15 years ago, before the euro was minted. However, they were drowned out by the Europhoria that dominated most of the ’90s in Europe, leaving the continent with a fundamentally unsustainable imbalance between monetary and fiscal policy.
So long as national government deficits were of manageable levels the imbalance did not have any notable political or macroeconomic consequences. As I describe in my forthcoming book Industrial Poverty, this was the case between the Millennium and Great Recessions. However, as soon as budgetary sink holes opened up around Europe from 2008 and on, the imbalance became a true problem.
The full explanation of this requires an intricate but fascinating macroeconomic analysis. I am working on it separately, hoping to share it later this year. In the meantime, let’s acknowledge that Evans-Pritchard hits it right on the nail: the mounting voter resistance to more EU power is a game changer for both the EU and the future of the euro currency. What is missing from his column is the right economic conclusion, namely that dismantling the welfare state – not reflation – is the way forward for Europe. But that is a minor point. Do take a moment and read the rest of his entertaining yet sharply analytical column.
As the dust settles on the elections to the European Parliament, a somewhat schizophrenic conclusion is emerging:
- on the one hand voters expressed their skepticism toward the EU project and rejected, overall, the notion of a continuous, business-as-usual expansion of the EU into a new, gigantic government bureaucracy;
- on the other hand the rejection of even bigger government was partly expressed in a form that, absurdly enough, may very well pave the way for another, even uglier form of government expansion.
The outcome of the election is more dramatic than most media outlets have yet realized. Put bluntly, this election was a loss for European parliamentary democracy and a gain for authoritarianism of a kind Europe has not suffered from for a quarter century now. But as painful as it is to acknowledge, the real winners of this election were communists and aggressive nationalists – also known as fascists.
There is no mistaking the outcome: voters spoke, and numbers changed in the European Parliament. Political parties with a traditional commitment to parliamentary democracy lost dramatically, with conservatives and liberals losing more than one fifth of their seats. At the same time, communists and radical socialists of assorted flavors increased their parliamentary presence by one third.
Add to those gains the big inroads made by aggressive nationalists and fascists.
Europe’s political elite may want to ignore this, but the most dangerous reaction to this election would be to turn a blind eye to what voters did: they passed power out from the democratic center to the outer rim of the political spectrum. There, communists and fascists stood ready to scoop up voters who are deeply dissatisfied with, well, just about everything from unemployment and economic stagnation to immigration and “inequality”.
Europe is now at a fork in the road, one that will decide the fate of a continent that is home to half-a-billion people. But before we get there, let us take a look at what actually happened in the election.
Communist parties did well, especially in southern Europe where the Great Recession has done its biggest damage. In Greece, the radical leftist party Syriza, which sees Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela as a political role model, took 26 percent of the vote and became the largest Greek party in the EU Parliament. In Italy, incumbent prime minister Renzi’s leftist Democratic Party got 40 percent of the vote. Portugal’s old communist party, rebranded as socialists, came in first with 31.5 percent of the vote. In Spain, a radical socialist coalition took ten percent of the votes, placing them third in the election.
But it was not just in southern Europe that communists, old or new, did well. Ireland’s scary-left and historically terrorist-affiliated Sinn Fein got a frighteningly large 17 percent of the votes.
Sweden is an example of how refurbished communists have shown remarkable resiliency in the past two decades. Their radical left is split among three parties, which taken together is more than the country’s traditionally dominant social democrats got. The three radical leftist parties are: the Greens (15.3 percent of the vote), the renovated-communist Leftist Party (6.3) and the new, aggressively socialist Feminist Initiative (5.3).
Altogether, the entire leftist spectrum – from vanilla-favored social democrats to hardline Chavista leftists – held their lines in the European Parliament, in the face of stiff competition. But as indicated by the above mentioned examples, the radical flank within the leftist block made big advancements. Their European Parliament group, called GUE/NGL, increased its number of seats by one third. This number could increase even more when some small, new parties from across the EU choose affiliation.
The underlying message in the shift toward the hard left is that Europe’s voters – already living under the biggest governments in the free world – have forgotten what happens when government grows beyond the boundaries traditionally respected in Western Europe. Perhaps the most conspicuous signal of Europe’s communist amnesia is embedded in the seven percent voter share that Die Linke got in Germany. They are the old Socialist Unity Party, in other words the party that ruled East Germany with an iron fist and back-up from Soviet tanks throughout the Cold War. Die Linke is fiercely anti-capitalist and shares Syriza’s adoration for what Hugo Chavez did to Venezuela.
The fact that Die Linke only got 7.4 percent should be considered in the context of the fact that Germany’s Green Party captured 10.7 percent of the votes. This puts the radical left in Germany at 18.1 percent, a share that grows even more in view of the fact that the SPD, the social democrats, are now parked at a lowly 27 percent voter share. If the social democrats in Germany continue to decline, the combined voter share of the Green Party and the old East German communists could easily exceed 25 percent in the next German national elections.
A surging radical left in the European Parliament will have profound consequences for European politics, but it will also affect Europe’s relations to the United States. More on that in a moment. First, let us take a look at the other flank of the authoritarian lowland.
Known under its less sophisticated label “fascism”, authoritarian nationalists made frightening advancements in the election. Most notorious, of course, is the victory in France for Front National under Marine Le Pen’s stewardship. Her polished version of the party her father founded won a stunning 25.4 percent of the vote, putting them decisively ahead of the nearest competition.
Ten years ago, Front National was little more than a punch line in a political joke. Yes, Jean-Marie Le Pen technically came in second in a presidential run-off against incumbent Jacques Chirac, but the entire campaign was of the same kind as if the Democrats had put up Ralph Nader against George W Bush in 2004. (No other comparison intended between Nader and Le Pen, of course.) Today, Front National is at a point where their leader can confidently demand that President Hollande dissolve the national parliament for new elections. That is not going to happen, but the demand sent shivers through the French political establishment.
It should. Marine Le Pen is no longer just a French political contender – she is in fact not just the leader of what is currently the largest political party in France. She is emerging as the leader of a new, bold, aggressive nationalist movement in Europe. Her party group in the European Parliament will incorporate outspoken fascists such as Hungarian Jobbik (which came in second in Hungary and apparently has its own uniformed party corps). Some media reports state that Front National and Jobbik are already in talks with each other on how to cooperate in the European Parliament.
Another of Le Pen’s new friends is Golden Dawn, which in the European election confirmed its position as Greece’s third largest party. Despite extensive legal challenges and elected officials of the party currently being incarcerated, Golden Dawn refuses to go away. More than likely, their strong support among police and the military will be enough to let them return, emboldened and empowered, to both the Greek and the European political scene.
With Front National, Jobbik and Golden Dawn as their pillars, the aggressive nationalist party group in the European Parliament could indeed turn out to be a vehicle for the rebirth of European fascism. The deciding factor will be where Europe’s rapidly rising patriotic parties will land. This is a different breed than the aggressive nationalists, consisting of Euro-skeptic parties, best exemplified by Britain’s UKIP. There is now a whole range of parties in Europe that fall into this category, such as PVV in the Netherlands, Danish People’s Party, Swedish Democrats, True Finns, Alternative for Germany and Austria’s People’s Party.
Some of these parties did remarkably well: both UKIP and the Danish People’s Party won their countries’ respective European Parliament elections. The Swedish Democrats scored almost ten percent of the votes, double what they got in the national elections in 2010. Alternative for Germany surprised many by capturing as much as seven percent of the votes, while there was disappointment among PVV supporters in the Netherlands as their party only got 13 percent and a third place.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this new group of patriotic parties holds Europe’s fate in their hands. Their ideological foundation spans from “basically libertarian” as Nigel Farage once called UKIP to welfare-statist Swedish Democrats. But they all have in common that they are committed to traditional, European parliamentary principles. This sets them apart from the aggressive nationalists whose political visions do not exclude a new full-scale fascist experiment.
If some of the patriotic parties are lured into cooperation with Front National, Jobbik and Syriza, there is a significant risk that Europe, within the next five years, will see a continent-wide fascist movement. There are other aggressive nationalist parties lurking in the political backwoods, ready to capitalize on voter disgruntlement with existing political options. Among those, Germany’s National Democratic Party, NDP, actually captured on seat in the European Parliament this time around.
With the history of Front National in mind, only imagination sets boundaries to what the NPD can accomplish.
Another example is the Party of the Swedes. Originally called the National Socialist Front and merged with violence-prone Swedish Resistance Movement, the Party of the Swedes is waiting for the patriotic, parliamentarian Swedish Democrats to fail to deliver on their voters’ Euro-skepticism. While waiting, Party of the Swedes is gaining parliamentary skills at the local level around Sweden. That experience can then be used in a run for national office – and eventually to reach for the European Parliament.
While fundamentally anti-democratic movements gained ground, the surge of democratic, patriotic parties is the only silver lining in this European Parliament election. This group is still small compared to the traditional center-right parties known under their acronyms EPP (center-right) and ALDE (center-liberal). But these democratic, patriotic parties hold the map in their hands to Europe’s future. If the EPP and ALDE choose to cooperate with them, then Europe will choose the stable, democratic road to the future.
If, on the other hand, the Europhiles in EPP and ALDE continue to ignore the growing, sound, democratic version of Euro-skepticism, and instead charge ahead with their project of a grand European Super-Union, the voter reaction will be fierce and potentially catastrophic. At that point, voters will seek other, much less palatable outlets for their skepticism or outright resistance to the European project.
If leaders of Europe’s conservatives, liberals and social democrats do not pay attention to what actually happened in this European election, they will do Golden Dawn, Jobbik, NPD and Front National a service they will regret for the rest of their lives.
It does not matter if Marine Le Pen is a fascist or an aggressive nationalist. Her surge to pan-European prominence has uncorked a bottle where black-shirted genies have been locked away for decades. History has shown how relentlessly those genies can intoxicate cadres of voters and how viciously they can tear down the institutions of parliamentary democracy.
Europe is playing with fire. The only thing that stands between the torch of fascism, lit up in this election, and a pan-European bonfire is the skill and insightfulness of a small group of Europhile politicians and bureaucrats in the hallways of power in Brussels. So far the leaders of EPP and ALDE, as well as the European Commission, have thoroughly ignored the rise of Euro-skepticism around the continent. So far they have been completely tone deaf to widespread popular frustration with the EU project.
Hopefully, they will come around and start listening to their critics. Hopefully they will let Nigel Farage be the recognized voice of Euro-criticism. But time is running out. If nothing decisively happens soon, the same trend that was set in this election will begin to show up in national elections.
In 2017, the Palais de l’Elysee could have a new tenant – Marine Le Pen.